Seven Writer Resolutions

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s that special time of year when everyone inflicts self-guilt for not having done all the things they vowed to do a year ago: Learn another language. Perfect William Shatner impersonation (hairpiece optional). Finally have “The Talk” with parents. Make a steaming batch of matelote from scratch… well, I suppose everyone’s list is different. Wouldn’t it be nice to make some resolutions you can actually keep? Try some of these.

  1. Write every week. Things pop up in life and we can’t always keep a daily writing appointment. If you decide to do creative writing at least once per week, writing 1000 words per session, by this time next year you could have your first draft of a novel completed.

If you intend to make a “write every day” resolution and/or a “start exercising” resolution, why not combine them? Write, then stretch and do some walking to get your circulation going. Do some biking and then write a little while you rest and drink some water. There’s no reason your resolutions should compete for your time.

  1. Set up an e-mail account just for your writing-related work. Use this e-mail address for all your submissions. Use it as part of your contact info. Create folders for “submissions” and “newsletters” and any other facet of your writing life. E-mail copies of your work to yourself (then everything’s stored “off site,” in case anything happens to your hard drive, disks, etc.).

Please don’t include any form of “write” in the e-mail address (ex: “ZuzuWriter@gmail.com”); it can come across as hokey to an editor. Avoid weird and cutesy names too, like “snowbunny76” or “scarletsuccubus” or the like. Stick with something like your real name, like sarahjessicaparker or sjparker or sarahjess.

  1. Keep track of your submissions. More than once, Toasted Cheese has accepted a submission only to have the writer tell us “oops, I forgot to tell you it was accepted someplace else.” After weeding it out, reading, rereading, sending the personalized acceptance letter, it’s very frustrating and, for me, puts the writer on a mental blacklist. The best way to avoid this is to have that “writing only” e-mail account to keep your stuff together.
  2. Submit one story, article or poem for publication. You might get rejected. In fact, you’ll probably get rejected. Rejections are nothing to be ashamed of; we all have tons of them. A rejection says “I tried” and trying is better than doing nothing.
  3. Enter a writing contest. Yes, that’s right. Write for fun and profit! The profit may only be publication, but contests are fun and there are several no-fee writing contests in the writing world. Novel and Short Story Writers Market and Poets Market list all kinds of contests (including ours) so check them out and give one a try. Even if you don’t place in the contest, you have met a deadline and you have a completed story to submit elsewhere. Two goals in one!
  4. Try a writing workshop. You can do it online in your own time (like here at Toasted Cheese). You can find a workshop near you and drop in (or just linger and eavesdrop, like I do). Chain and local bookstores often host writer workshops in-store so ask an employee for a schedule or the group’s name. You can usually find groups and their schedules online. Check out Meetup.com and look for writing groups in your area (or reading groups—see #7). If there’s no writing group near you and you’d like to have a real-life workshop experience, try to start your own group.
  5. Read. If you are a writer, you should be a reader as well. Poetry books can teach us about word economy, metaphor and imagery. Novels and collections of short fiction can inspire us to do our own storytelling. Memoirs and biographies can teach us about character development, believability and entertainment value.

Joining a book club can give you a push. Oprah.com hosts a virtual book club that you may have heard of and they read some interesting classics. You can discuss the book online or just use it as a possible answer to “what should I read next?”

You can also read online. Literary journals, newspapers, magazines and even classic literature can be found quite easily. Many folks have posted their NaNoWriMo novels online. Maybe you’ll discover tomorrow’s literary sensation today!

Keep us updated on your progress and let us know how the resolutions work out for you. We’ll check in with you this year (all right, some may call it “nagging”) and hopefully by this time in 2005 you’ll be able to say “look what I’ve done” instead of “I wish I had.”

Final Poll Results

Quantity, Not Quality:
National Novel Writing Month

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

It’s the middle of November, and for many of us, that means desperately trying to keep up (or catch up) with our goals for National Novel Writing Month.

For anyone who hasn’t already heard about it, NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge to write an entire 50,000 word (175 page) novel by midnight, November 30. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality, encouraging writers to ignore their inner editors and just get the words out.

In the words of NaNo’s creators, “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I talked to some previous NaNo winners, asking them to share their wisdom for reaching the finish line with those of us participating for the first time.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a Toronto-based freelance writer who was a NaNo winner in 2002, said keeping focused on the goal and looking for support from friends and other writers was vital.

“Whenever I started falling behind my daily wordcount goal, there was always a temptation to give up,” she said. “But one of my reasons for publicly announcing my participation in Nanowrimo was to give myself that extra motivation. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing in a situation like this.”

Ohi also stressed the importance of turning off the critic within. “One of the goals of the whole Nanowrimo experience is to allow yourself to write without self-censoring, to get over those pesky writing blocks. Editing can come later, if that’s what you want,” she said.

S. Jennifer Stewart-Boyd is the municipal liason for Rhode Island, with 75-100 writers participating in her area this year. She was a NaNo winner in 2002 and 2003. She said she tells the writers in her area not to give up in the second week, when most participants are feeling the most fear, doubt and despair.

“If you can make it to thirty thousand words, it gets so much easier. Since I completed it the last two years, I have a lot more confidence now in my ability to see it through, even if I’m behind,” she said.

Stewart-Boyd herself was behind in the middle of the second week, but determined not to give up. “I’m still certain I’ll make it,” she said. “Just before it started this year, I looked over my two previous works, which I’d printed out and put in binders. It felt like a real book, and I thought, ‘You did this, and it’s a great accomplishment. You can do it again.'”

Most important, most of the writers agreed, was to keep going and see it through to the finish.

“Even if you only write a hundred words a day, keep at it, and see it through,” Stewart-Boyd said. “Whatever you do, don’t give up. It helps a lot to talk to others who are going through it, and that’s why we have write-ins, so that the writers will encourage each other, just by being there and going through the same thing.”

In order to motivate herself, Stewart-Boyd said she rewards herself every thousand words or so. “I get a break, to do whatever I want. I play videogames, take myself out, whatever is fun and feels special. I buy this hard-to-find stuff, Republic of Tea’s Writer’s Chai, and I allow myself a glass about every finished page or so. When I haven’t met my goal, I deny myself fun and special things, even make myself eat cold cereal instead of hot food. Every five thousand words, I get ice cream, which is one of my favourite things.

Sebastian Raaphorst, a software developer from Mississauga, Ontario, is in his fourth year as a NaNo participant. He said the key to finishing is to resist going back to delete what you’ve written.

“If you do that, you’ll almost certainly give in to temptation again and again, and you’ll fall far behind. Save the refinement for December 1st, or even better, January 1st when you’ve finished apologizing to your friends and family for ignoring them for a month.

Even worse, Raaphorst said, is resisting the urge to completely scrap your novel and start over.

“It was particularly bad this year, and by day six, my novel very nearly found its way into my PowerBook’s trash can; however, I forced my way through it, and cranked out a huge wordcount on days seven and eight, and everything fell into place: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, etc… Perseverance is the key!”

Rich Thomas, a Customer Support Engineer from San Jose, California, said the hardest part is writing every day. His advice is that it’s important to know when to be hard on yourself, and when to loosen up.

“Sometimes you need to keep going even if it is not going well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sticking it out,” he said.

Thomas’s final piece of advice: “done is beautiful.”

“Every once in a while you will need to just write something. No matter how bad it is right now, if you keep on going, you will write something good later. That’s what your goal really is.

Megan Hoffman, a student at the University of Delaware, is a first-time participant. She said that for her, the biggest challenge is staying close to the computer.

“I go home maybe twice a month to do laundry. I visit my friends for the weekend in other states. It’s so easy just to forget about the novel for a few days, and I really have to work hard to get back into writing regularly,” she said.

She uses the peer pressure/competition method to keep herself motivated. She also carries around paper to jot down notes for herself during the day.

“You have to budget time and have things plotted out in advance. It makes a world of a difference,” Hoffman said.

Stewart-Boyd said that reaching the halfway point without giving up was an important factor in finishing.

“In 2002, I was afraid to tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends — even the person I was dating — because I didn’t know if I was up to the challenge,” she said. “But by halfway through the month, I knew I could do it, and I told everyone. After that, I knew I had to finish, because people I knew were pulling for me to do it.”

Some final words of encouragement from Ohi:

  • One challenge is the temptation to let Real Work interfere with one’s dedication to Nanowrimo. Fortunately I got over that pretty quickly.
  • Don’t do housework. Amazing how much extra writing time you can get that way.
  • The microwave is your friend.
  • Keep records of your daily wordcount and cumulative wordcount.

For Ohi, the best motivation was to “think ahead about how wonderful it will be to have actually Finished A Book.”

“It’s incredibly easy to start writing a book, much more difficult to finish one,” she said. “So what if it’s not the best quality? At least you’ve got one under your belt; you can now start editing, or move on to your next project.”

Final Poll Results

Procrastinating With Purpose

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

You should be writing. Yes, you read that correctly. You should be writing, not browsing online, checking e-mail, finding little distractions… or should you?

Three years ago, our Absolute Blank article was “Mirror, Mirror: Finding Your Writing Style” by Theryn (Beaver) Fleming. One of the types was The Procrastinator, the writer who can be prolific once she’s gotten started but just can’t seem to get started. Beaver’s sage advice was to make writing appointments and keep them, using the story ideas you store up while “not-writing.”

Does procrastination have a positive place in a writer’s life? Sure it can, as it can come in handy for anyone. The key to making procrastination into a boon instead of a burden is to use it to improve your work.

There are three ways writers procrastinate: doing non-writing activity, doing writing-related activity and doing throwaway writing.

Let’s talk briefly about the last way. You may be asking, “isn’t any writing that I do considered ‘good’ writing?” It can be and usually is. If you want to work on your novella and you become engrossed doing a background story that relates to the action, you’re not necessarily doing any throwaway writing. If you start doing a character bio and are inspired to write the emigration of the main character’s great-great-grandmother and get caught up in a sweeping saga of love, loss and liberation, that’s not a productive use of writing time (fun as it may be). Of course, no one’s forcing you to stay with your original idea. Maybe the first idea is boring you and the other one gets your juices flowing. The point is that spending your valuable writing time doing superfluous work might make you feel like you’ve wasted it in the end.

I suffer from writing-related procrastination. It doesn’t have to be fiction that I’m dilly-dallying about writing. It could be a blog entry, a letter or, just as an example, an Absolute Blank article.

Let’s say I have an idea for an article. I want to get some more information or read other articles on similar topics. I “Google” whatever search terms I like and start working. At least, I call it “working.” I find a good article at a site and decide to see what else is in their archives that might be inspiring. I check out their forums, if they have any. Someone has posted a link. I click the link and go to another writing site. The new site has an archive of articles that I need to look over. It’s research, after all! The circle continues until I recognize what’s happening and either begin writing or tear myself away. One key is to recognize when you go from research into random websurfing.

You can set a time limit for research, if that works for you. Alternately, you could try to train yourself to recognize that you have enough research for the time being. If, like me, you enjoy the research, use it to treat yourself. After five days of solid writing, spend a day doing research, organizing your notes or cleaning up your bookmarks.

Unless you’re a professional, salaried writer, non-writing activity takes up most of your day. Your job, your classes, your life in general is chock-full already. Where to fit in your passion for creative writing?

You can work on your writing any time. I think about plotlines and characters while driving or while drifting off to sleep. I keep a little notebook in my bag to jot down ideas, things to look up, even character names when I’m out. Non-fiction writers can use their day jobs, no matter what they are, for writing inspiration. I got lots of ideas for characters and dialogue while working retail customer service.

Let’s take Beaver’s advice and make a writing appointment with yourself. Someone else is on pet and/or child duty. The answering machine is on and the online connection is off. You reach for a floppy with your story on it and have some trouble finding it. So you take “just a minute” and organize the disks. What you really need is a pen and some paper, just in case. Another minute to find that. Ooh, better use the bathroom. Don’t want to have to get up in the middle of a sentence. Better get a drink while you’re up. And a coaster. The screen looks smeary so you find a Windex wipe and clean it off. And the keyboard. The CPU. The printer. The mouse. The volume knob on the speakers…

Finally, you get around to writing. It’s good. You’re chugging right along. It occurs to you to do a word count and you’re over 500! If you were Graham Greene, you could quit. You’re a little bleary-eyed with a stiff back. Knowing you’re a procrastinator, do you dare walk away now that you’re in the groove?

You dare. Here’s the why and how:

  1. Writing is work. Like most any work, it can be physically draining. If you were out gardening and started to get uncomfortable, would you stop and stretch your back? Of course. It doesn’t mean you’ll leave all your equipment out in the elements for days. You’re not going to leave your story open on the computer for days either. Just a quick stand-stretch-squat can get your blood flowing again. If nothing else, flex your fingers and turn your head in every possible direction. Writing is a job and every worker deserves a coffee break or two.
  2. Eye strain. It’s a reason, not an excuse. Take a little break to focus on something else or to close your eyes. You don’t even have to leave the computer (or the page). Think about your story and what you will write next while you take this break. As Martha Stewart said, “I catnap now and then but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”
  3. You’re intense. When you write, you get absolutely focused. Maybe you’ve just written an emotional and/or critical scene and you need to step back from it. There’s nothing wrong with playing a round of Tetris or catching the end of “The Daily Show.” If you want to stay in writing mode, time this break and return when your head is cleared.
  4. You’re stuck. Here’s a case when that writing-related procrastination is a good idea. You need to use the thesaurus (another reason for an eye break or a stretch break). You have to look up a farming term. Sometimes you might want to write around your roadblock. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to get properly “unstuck” so that you can concentrate on what’s ahead, not what you’ve already written
  5. You’re distracted. Maybe you are a stronger person than I. You ignored the dirty computer screen and the unkempt pile of character notes. As you write, you notice these little things and you find yourself thinking more about chores than writing. Allow yourself a break to take care of some stuff if it’s distracting you. I keep a timer near the computer for several purposes and this is one (the previously-mentioned round of computer games is another). When the bell dings, back to your seat.
  6. You need to edit. You’ve just written gold! Pure gold! Unfortunately it doesn’t mesh with chapter one. Rewrite chapter one. It’s productive work, not writing-related procrastination.
  7. You have, ahem, “human needs.” Hunger, thirst, potty break, whatever. Just take care of it and come right back. You can’t concentrate on what you’re writing if you’re thinking about something else. For refreshment breaks, have someone serve you whenever possible. One fun way to keep a writing appointment is to make it on pizza night. What else to do while you wait for delivery? Take that half-hour and churn out a little something creative.
  8. You’re done. Maybe the reason you’re stalled in your writing is because you have nothing else to do. You’ve completed the chapter, the poem, the paper, the article or whatever you’ve been slaving over. Now’s the time to send to a friend for a second opinion, post it for some feedback or hand it over to the dutiful one who brought you drinks and let the dog out while you wrote.One tip: never leave off a piece of writing without leaving yourself something new. If you finish a chapter, write a couple lines of the next chapter. The Future You will sit down to work on it, dive right in and feel productive.

Now it’s time for me to blow the whistle and send my fellow procrastinators back to work. Get some inspiration from the boards, the calendar or archived exercises and get to work already!

Final Poll Results

Starting Will Always Be Hard:
What Running Taught Me About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In April 2002 I started running again after a long hiatus. This summer, I ran in three 5K “races.” I didn’t set any records, finish first, or even win my age group. But it was an accomplishment that I’m proud of nonetheless.

Now, I’m sure that there are more than a few people who upon reading that first paragraph thought, “That’s it?” Yup, that’s it. You see, the idea of entering an event before I knew I could run the entire distance without walking was as much of an anathema to me as the idea of soliciting agents with a half-finished first draft of a novel. I wouldn’t do it. It’s just not the way I operate.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never do things quickly. I’m a slow runner—it takes me 30 minutes to run 5K, about twice as long as the fastest runners—and I’m a slow writer. I will never churn out three novels a year. Angst and perfectionism are real speed bumps. But that’s okay. It may even be better than okay. When I get discouraged at my pace, I like to remind myself that the tortoise won.

The point is, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Other people’s ways of getting to the finish line may appear more efficient, but you’re always going to be slamming up against roadblocks if you try to emulate a way of being that you’re uncomfortable with. Stumble often enough, and you’ll probably quit. It’s human nature.

Consider this: the prevailing philosophy amongst the running crowd is that beginners will quit unless they join a group, that it’s impossible to start running and keep it up on your own. Notice I didn’t say difficult, I said impossible. Lots of people really believe that. Lots of people would be wrong.

Like the idea of running with a big sweaty talky group of people who are probably all faster than you? I didn’t. It made me cringe. You just know that someone would be designated to hang back and “cheer” you on because if you’re at the back of the pack that automatically means you’re having difficulty, right? Well, no. Sometimes it just means you’re slow. And then there was the fact that most of these groups seemed to meet at 8am Sunday mornings. Um, no.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of socially ingrained notions about what “good” behavior is. Everyone’s heard tales of people who get up at 5am to write or work out. What dedication! Getting up early is touted as the sign of productivity. Staying up late? Well, that’s merely decadent. Not to mention, you must be procrastinating if you’re leaving something to the end of the day.

Well, I won’t deny that I procrastinate. I do. But that’s beside the point. The point is: Don’t try to be a morning person if you’re not. No, really, don’t. This is huge. If I had tried to be an early morning runner, I doubt I’d have made it a week. I’m stiff in the morning and I need at least one cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. Instead, I usually run in the early evening, before supper. At that time of day, I look forward to it. This is key. The same principle applies to writing. Schedule your writing time so it’s something you look forward to, not dread. You know when you’ll be most productive. Don’t fight it; work with it. Setting the alarm an hour early just so you can hit the snooze button six times isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Now running, being what it is, is subject to the weather. There are always going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the summer that means it’s too hot; any other time of year that means it’s too wet. This is the West Coast, after all. And there are days when I think, “Bleh, I don’t want to go out in that.” But you know, shit happens. Deal with it. Running when the weather is inclement is what differentiates a real runner from a dabbler. So it’s hot or wet. Go anyway. Of course there are limits. It would be stupid to run in lightning or extreme heat. Similarly, if you’re sick or injured, it’s okay to take time off. The important thing is that if you do have to break an appointment—for a valid reason, not a mere excuse—you have a plan in place for getting back on track.

Just as a real runner runs in any weather, a real writer writes even when uninspired. If you’ve made an appointment to write, keep your appointment. Maybe all you’ll write is crap that day, but so what? Everyone has bad days. At the same time, if you do miss an appointment, let it go. Don’t dwell on your “failure”; concentrate on making the next one. Developing a routine is great, but even more important is being able recover from an interruption to that routine.

I mentioned dabbling. Before I restarted running, I tried cycling and swimming and yoga and hiking and well, you get the picture. Before I restarted writing, I did much the same thing only with photography and graphic design and such. These things were fun; I enjoyed them; some I was even quite good at. But the problem with trying keep up a multiplicity of activities even when they’re fun and you’re good at them is that ultimately they’re all unsatisfying because you never feel like you’re getting anywhere.

However, sometimes it’s precisely that dissatisfaction that’s the kick in the butt you need to quash your inner dabbler and make a decision. What’s your passion? What do you really want to do? Focusing means putting some of your other activities on the backburner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do anything else. Cross-training is great; it keeps you from being bored, it exercises different muscles. But cross-training is different from dabbling. With cross-training the other activities support your vocation; they don’t overwhelm it.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to focus on, keep it simple. When I started running, I wore an old pair of shoes, old T-shirt, old shorts. I did not dash out and purchase an entire wardrobe of hi-tech running clothes before I’d lifted a foot. There’s nothing more dorky that the person who’s all kitted out but completely inept. You can start writing with a nothing but a pen and a piece of looseleaf. Or type, if you prefer, but don’t worry about special software; Notepad works just as well as anything to start.

And just as a beginning runner should concentrate on breathing, gait, and pace, not looking pretty, a beginning writer should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and spelling and tell stories in a standard, straightforward format, not waste energy developing her “style.” Once you’ve mastered the basics and proved your commitment, you can add to your wardrobe—or your style repertoire—as necessary.

One mistake that beginners (at anything) almost always make is to set goals that are too lofty. Start small. Set realistic goals, that is, ones you know you can meet. Otherwise, you’re just sabotaging yourself.

When I started running my first goal was to run one minute, walk one minute five times. Doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I could do it. And because I’d planned to run-walk, walking wasn’t a failure; it was part of the plan. Once that was easy, I set a new goal, and so on. I also made it a rule that if I ran one day, I got the next day off.

Which brings me to: schedule breaks. I knew if my initial goal was “run 5 minutes,” I could probably do it, but I’d be exhausted and flopping all over the place by the end. By running in intervals, I maintained my form throughout and I felt a lot better about my performance than I would have if I’d pushed straight through.

If you’ve set aside one morning a week to write, instead of planning to plant yourself in the chair for the entire three hours, plan to take regular breaks, say write for 15 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes. But I’m on a roll! That’s great. Stop anyway. When your break is up, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to write next and you’ll be eager to get back to it.

And speaking of goals: Don’t rely solely on external gratification. Set goals you have personal control over. As a runner, I set goals to run a particular time or distance, not to finish in a particular place. Placing is completely dependent on how others do—you don’t have control over it. That’s not to say it isn’t nice to finish in the top whatever, but take that as gravy, don’t make it your goal. Like I said, my goal in my first event was to run the entire distance. I did, and that’s a big deal considering two years ago running one minute was arduous. Sure it took me a while to get there. But I did, because I set achievable goals along the way.

Achievable goals: Write for 1 hour on Saturdays. Finish this short story by the end of the month. Enter 3 contests this year. Query 20 agents about my novel. On the other hand, “Get my novel published” is not. I mean, yes, of course that’s what you ultimately want, but unless you have a lot of clout, you can’t make someone publish you, and if you’ve set that as your goal, when you’re rejected (over and over) you’re just going to end up frustrated. Whereas if your goal was to send the queries, you can think more along the lines of, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”

What is next? Well, like my running events, your first brush with publishing is likely to be something small: a story in an ezine, an article in a newspaper. And I’ve noticed that people have a terrible tendency to downplay these accomplishments: “just a little magazine” “just paid in copies” etc. But yeesh, how do you think most writers started? Getting a big advance for one’s first novel with no previous credits as unlikely as picking a marathon as your first event and running it in under three hours. You need the “little” credits. They’re perfectly legitimate and they’re important. Don’t damn them with “justs.”

When I ran in my first event, I ended up right in the middle of the pack. The middle! I’m sure no one has ever been happier to find out she was average. Of course, with running, average exceeded my expectations; with writing, I expect more, but the truth is, whatever the game, most of us are somewhere in the middle—maybe a little above, maybe a little below. That doesn’t mean we should give up. You can be successful without coming in first, without being the best writer ever, without writing the Great [insert country here] Novel. It’s okay to simply be good at something. The current media trend to label everyone who doesn’t finish first a “loser” is ridiculous.

If it matters to you, do it, even if no one else cares or they think you’re silly to keep at something that seems so hard. Running is hard. Writing is hard. But that’s why they’re so rewarding. If they came easily they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Probably the most important thing that running has taught me is that no matter how long you’ve done something and how much you love it, starting will always be hard. Start anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never get to experience that moment when everything clicks and you’re sailing: your feet are flying across the pavement or your fingers are smoking over the keyboard. And afterward, when you’re done? Well, that feeling is sheer euphoria.

Final Poll Results

Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

My mental images are rather shadowy things, and trying to put into words something that I can’t see in gory detail was always problematic for me. I remember once, in a very early writing attempt, trying to “practice” writing a description. I tried to describe a room in a castle. I started by describing the carpet in as much detail as I could dredge up from my image-poor mind, then moved on to describe all the furniture in the room, the wall hangings, and a trunk in the corner. And then I read what I wrote, and decided I was hopeless at description.

This hopelessness was continually reinforced as I read what I thought ought to be good descriptions of things, but never could really “see” what the thing was. By the time I was done trying, I had less of an idea of what something was supposed to look like than I had before. I’d get partway into a paragraph, and my eyes would start to glaze over trying to make sense of long lists of details.

Background image:  Ellen van Deelen/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Ellen van Deelen/Flickr (CC-by)

I tried to finesse the problem. I worked around actually describing things. I’d give one, maybe two, important pieces of visual information. And then, rather than go into more visual detail, I’d try to get at how the object or person made me feel, rather than what they looked like. As I am not very visual, this “emotional picture” was more important to me than a visual picture anyway. I’d use actions or other non-visual detail such as smell or touch to describe things. My goal was to get others to get a “feel” for the thing, and hope it was enough. And I found, to my amazement, that people seemed to think I’d given a wealth of description when I thought I’d just given barely enough to get by on.

I thought about it, and paid more attention to the authors whose descriptions I did not skip over. I found they, too, only gave bare bones visual descriptions, but managed to convey the picture in other ways. And I realized that what they, and I, were doing were creating background textures rather than detailed drawings.

What do I mean by background textures?

In many drawing programs, you can fill in a large space with a texture, or visual pattern. For example, a texture labeled “forest” might be a swirl of greens and browns that gives the impression of a forest. Swirls of blues and white might give the impression of water. Textures work because the human mind is excellent at filling in details if the impression of the thing is close enough to the thing.

If you want to show a tiger in the jungle, you could draw an incredibly detailed jungle around the tiger, showing every tree, every branch. Or you could put the tiger in front of a “forest” texture of greens and browns that vaguely resemble trees and plants. The person looking at the picture knows instinctively that those greens and browns represent a forest. The mind fills the more nebulous greens and browns in with more detailed shapes that are perceived as jungle plants.

The tiger could also be shown as a texture rather than a detailed drawing by using a texture of black and orange stripes. A splash of dark red and sharp white triangles near the head area would give an instant impression of blood and teeth. Such abstract imagery can be just as effective as photographic reproductions. In fact, the abstract image can even be more effective by allowing our minds to conjure up all the details we associate with tigers, teeth, and blood rather than forcing us to see a specific detailed image.

The same principle can be applied to writing descriptions. Create the right impression, and the less critical details will automatically be filled in by the reader. This leaves the reader with the feeling that the object or place has been very well described, but without the frustrated feeling that can often accompany an overwhelming wealth of minute detail.

Textured descriptions are more lush than descriptions that depend on minute visual detail. Textured descriptions pull in other senses to create an emotional mood that represents and defines the object being described. A textured description evokes the shape and feel and atmosphere of the object in a way that gives the reader a sense of what the object is really about. When textured descriptions are done correctly, readers won’t ask for more details because they’ll have subconsciously provided any extra details they need for them to see what you are describing.

Consider the different approaches two children’s authors take with their first description of their villains.

In Redwall, Brian Jaques introduces us to Cluny the Rat:

Cluny was coming!

He was big, and tough; an evil rat with ragged fur and curved, jagged teeth. He wore a black eyepatch; his eye had been torn out in a battle with a pike.

Cluny had lost an eye.

The pike had lost its life!

Some said Cluny was a Portuguese rat. Others said he came from the jungles far across the wide oceans. Nobody knew for sure.

Cluny was a bilge rat; the biggest, most savage rodent that ever jumped from ship to shore. He was black, with grey and pink scars all over his huge sleek body, from the tip of his wet nose, up past his green and yellow slitted eye, across both his mean tattered ears, and down the length of his heavy vermin-ridden back to the enormous whiplike tail which had earned him the title: Cluny the Scourge!

Now compare Cluny with Manny Rat, from Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. We first meet Manny when he runs across the toy mouse and his son in a dump:

A large rat crept out of the shadows of the girders into the light of the overhead lamps, and stood up suddenly on his hind legs before the mouse and his child. He wore a greasy scrap of silk paisley tied with a dirty string in the manner of a dressing gown, and he smelled of darkness, of stale and moldy things, and garbage. He was there all at once and with a look of tenure, as if he had always been waiting just beyond their field of vision, and once let in would never go away. In the eerie blue glare he peered beadily at father and son and his eyes, as passing headlights came and went, flashed blank and red like two round tiny ruby mirrors. His whiskers quivered as his face came closer; he bared his yellow teeth and smiled, and a paw shot out to strike the mouse and his child a rattling blow that knocked them flat.

Despite the fact that Cluny is described in much greater visual detail, I really don’t know what he looks like. I can list the words, but I, as a non-visual person, have very little sense of Cluny beyond the fact he’s rough and tough.

The description of Manny Rat has only a few visual details: he’s got a paisley dressing gown-like thing on, his eyes are red, and his teeth are yellow. None of the other details are visual. They are all emotional, or pick up on the other senses. He smells of darkness… that, to me, conveys a far greater sense of his “wrongness” than anything in Cluny’s description. He had always been waiting just beyond their field of vision… again, the eeriness of this gives me an instant sense of who and what Manny Rat is.

The description of Manny paints an emotional picture that has a far greater impact on me than Cluny’s battle with the pike or the description of his scars and whip-like tail. I don’t need to know if Manny has scars, or tattered ears. I know he’s stealthy, sneaky, and cruel. I know this in my gut. My mind will fill in the color and condition of his fur, the length of his tail, all the left-out details, because I know he is a rat. He’s rat-textured, but the picture around the texture is clear. I see the evil, and let my mind take care of the physical details.

If you struggle with creating good descriptions, look to see if perhaps you are trying too hard to be visual. Using a textured description is the corollary to using the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle for plot and characterization. The key is to evoke the emotional response you want the reader to have towards the object being described rather than giving a verbal snapshot that doesn’t leave anything for the reader’s imagination to do.

Final Poll Results

12 More Quick Fixes
That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter:
…or How To Impress An Editor

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the original Quick Fixes article, I covered some basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues. Nearly two years have passed since then, and I’m pleased to announce that it seems everyone read my article and took my advice to heart. Those errors, once so common, are never seen anymore!

Ha ha! Oh, all right. The abuse of the apostrophe continues. Corporations—who can well afford to hire someone who knows how to properly place an apostrophe—omit it where it should be used, witness Tim Hortons (sic) and Earls (sic). Those are possessives, people! But not to fear, those dropped apostrophes aren’t lost, only misplaced—one can’t pick up a flyer or walk past a store window without being bombarded by DVD’s, tea’s, apple’s, sofa’s, and book’s. Eeeeee! It’s enough to drive a grammarian to drink.

But enough about the poor maligned apostrophe. We’re here to discuss some new peeves, er, issues. This article is the culmination of the list of errors I’ve been keeping since the first article came out.

  1. It’s a T-SHIRT, not a tee shirt.

This is a curious one, because it requires the writer to type two extra characters, which in the age of netspeak—b4, 2day, l8r, etc.—is a lot. Nevertheless, it’s an error that’s been popping up frequently. So let’s put an end to it. T-shirts are named after the letter T, which they resemble when laid out flat. A tee is the little wooden thing a golf ball sits on. It has nothing to do with shirts.

  1. A or AN?

AN goes before words that start with a vowel sound, i.e. words that start with a vowel or words that start with a silent H: honor, honest, hour. If you pronounce the consonant, as in historical, it’s A not AN.A goes before words that start with a consonant sound, i.e. words that start with a consonant or words that start with a vowel that sounds like a consonant: ukulele, unicorn, one.When in doubt, sound it out. One word that’s tricky is herb, which can be pronounced with a silent or an audible H. Use A or AN, depending on how you pronounce the word.

AN A
an apple a pear
an honor a historical drama
an herb, if you pronounce it “erb” with a silent H a herb, if you pronounce it “herb” with an audible H
an usher a ukulele
an octopus a one-shot deal
  1. Don’t PLURALIZE UNNECESSARILY.

Just as people have become inordinately fond of inserting apostrophes where they aren’t needed, they have also become fond of randomly adding an S to the end of words that don’t need to be pluralized. For some reason, this is especially true when it comes to trademarks and tradenames, which means you’ll often see sentences such as:

  • My mom has a box full of Legos stored in her attic.
  • You can buy my book at Barnes & Nobles.
  • Fred is the meat manager at Safeways.

Lego, Barnes & Noble, and Safeway do not end in S. Never pluralize tradenames when you’re writing about one of whatever it is. That is simply wrong. Similarly, acronyms should not be randomly pluralized:

  • Jane was dissatisfied with her 97th percentile score on the LSATs.

It’s the Law School Admission Test, not Tests. There is no reason to pluralize LSAT in this sentence.

Adding an S to pluralize a tradename is generally acceptable in informal writing:

  • While pulling an all-nighter, Sam drank six Cokes.
  • There are three Safeways in town.

There are exceptions, however. Lego works fine as both a singular and a plural—just like deer, fish, and sheep do:

  • My mom has a box full of Lego stored in her attic.

In formal writing, tradenames should only be used as modifiers, not nouns: Lego bricks, Barnes & Noble bookstores.

By the way, anyway, forward, backward, toward, etc. are all perfectly good words without the addition of an S. While both versions are acceptable, the sans-S versions are more formal. It’s fine to use the more colloquial S versions in dialogue, but your writing will sound more professional if you don’t do it elsewhere.

  1. PREMIER vs. PREMIERE.

While it’s true that both words mean “first” in French, in English, premier and premiere are two different words, each with its own meaning (and pronunciation).

Premier can be used as an adjective to mean first in rank or importance:

  • The chef only uses premier cuts of meat.

Used as a noun, premier is synonymous with prime minister (the chief executive in a parliamentary government):

  • While he was vacationing in Hawaii, Premier Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence.

On the other hand, a premiere is the first performance of a play or movie:

  • All the A-list celebrities showed up for the premiere.

Premiere can also be used as verb:

  • The movie premiered on May 1st.
  1. ANYMORE does not mean NOWADAYS.

I have a friend who uses anymore to mean nowadays, as in:

  • Anymore, I shop at Pottery Barn. (Meaning: Nowadays, I do shop at Pottery Barn.)

When I first heard her do this, it struck me as wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it bugged me. Apparently I’m not alone. As Paul Brians says: it’s “guaranteed to jolt listeners … Even if they can’t quite figure out what’s wrong.” Exactly.

Using anymore in this fashion is acceptable in dialogue, because people do talk this way. But not otherwise. Anymore (or any more—either form is acceptable, though any more is less common nowadays ;-)) is a term of negation. Use it when you mean that someone doesn’t do something that they used to do:

  • I don’t shop at Pier One anymore. (Meaning: I used to shop at Pier One, but I stopped.)
  1. An ELLIPSIS consists of three dots.

Not two, not four, not ten. Three.

Ellipses are used to indicate omission. If you’re quoting another writer and you leave out part of the passage, indicate the omission by inserting an ellipsis:

  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like … but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” –JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

If the omission comes at the end of a sentence, a space should be left between the period and the ellipsis:

  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. … His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ellipses can also be used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that her speech has become inaudible:

  • “I wish I knew what to do,” Brandy said, “If only Bob were here…”
  1. EM DASHES vs. EN DASHES vs. HYPHENS

Em dashes are the long dashes used to offset a section of text—like so. Word will automatically create an em dash if you type two hyphens together flush to the text on either side (no spaces). But beware: this formatting won’t always translate to other programs. For example, if you’re sending a submission via plain text e-mail, the dash will probably turn into a single hyphen-like this. Notice how “hyphen-like” ends up looking like a compound word. If you send a lot of electronic submissions, you may want to turn off the auto-formatting, and use two hyphens in place of a dash (the old typewriter method) so there is no confusion.

Dashes can be used as a more informal way than a colon to introduce a list or explanation at the end of a sentence:

  • My first celebrity crush was Randolph Mantooth—John Gage on Emergency!

They can also be used in pairs (much like parentheses) to indicate a digression from your main train of thought:

  • Melissa—the class valedictorian—only dates boys whose names begin with A.

They are also used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker has broken off suddenly or has been interrupted in mid-speech. Note the subtle difference between the use of a dash in dialogue and the use of an ellipsis in dialogue:

  • “I wish I knew what to do. If only—” Brandy turned as Bob ran into the room.

En dashes are shorter than em dashes, but longer than hyphens. They’re generally used to connect numbers that are inclusive. Word will create an en dash if you type a hyphen (or two) with a space on either side. Like em dashes, en dashes should be flush to the text on either side, so delete the spaces once the dash is created:

  • The Athens Olympics will be held August 13–29, 2004.
  • Reception: 7–9 p.m.

For electronic submission purposes, a hyphen will suffice, but if you’re printing a hard copy, use the en dash. Note that it’s difficult to see the difference between the en dash and the hyphen in some fonts, like Verdana, but they are different, as you can see here in Times New Roman: — – –

Hyphens are used to make compound words: quick-witted, e-mail, bow-legged, co-operative, and to separate non-inclusive numbers such as phone numbers: 1-800-555-1234. Like dashes, hyphens should be flush to the text on either side, with one exception, the hanging hyphen, which has a space after it:

  • There are both four- and five-year-olds in Billy’s kindergarten class.
  1. Leave ONE SPACE after periods, not two.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were probably taught to leave two spaces after a period. This is because typewriters use fixed-width fonts, i.e. each character takes up the same amount of space. Leaving two spaces after a period made it easier for readers to distinguish where one sentence ended and another began.With proportional fonts, characters take up proportional amounts of space, e.g. m is wider than l. Word processing programs automatically adjust the spaces between words. If you place two spaces after each period, your text will not kern properly and you’ll end up with rivers of white space running down your pages.

  1. Don’t use BEING to imply BECAUSE.

I hate it when writers start sentences with being:

  • Being seventeen, Joy works at McDonald’s.

Yecch. Such sentences have always irritated me—at the very least, they sound clunky—but are they technically wrong? Actually, yes. The problem with such sentences is that being is used to imply because (the technical term is “misrelated participle”), i.e. Joy works at McDonald’s because she is 17. But really, the first sentence doesn’t actually tell the reader anything more than: Joy, 17, works at McDonald’s. Readers must decide what the connection is between the two facts on their own. A much better sentence would be:

  • 17-year-old Joy works at McDonald’s because it’s the only place in town that hires teenagers.
  1. Make sure you’re using the RIGHT WORD.

A malapropism is the substitution of a similar-sounding word for the one actually intended. Sometimes the consequences are amusing; other times they’re just baffling. Dubya Bush isn’t the only person prone to malapropisms; I often come across them while reading submissions.

While malapropisms are sometimes due to ignorance, I think what often happens is than in the midst of a creative jag, writers will plug in a word that sounds like it might be the right one but isn’t—e.g. “hyperbolic chamber” instead of “hyperbaric chamber”—fully intending to go back and change it later. Then, in the editing process, it gets missed. That’s not surprising; the writer knows what he meant and his eyes glide over the word, giving it the intended interpretation. This is why it’s important to have someone else proofread your work!

  1. Use ITALICS to indicate EMPHASIS, not quotation marks.

Quotation marks are almost as popular as apostrophes these days:

  • Mmm! “Juicy” tomatoes!!!
  • Have we got a “surprise” for you!
  • Please park in “back.”

The primary purpose of quotation marks is to indicate that something is being quoted. It could be a passage from someone else’s writing or dialogue in a story. Their secondary purpose is that of the “air quote” variety, used to indicate irony. When you stick quotation marks around a word or phrase, the implication is that what you’re saying isn’t really true:

  • Mom and Aunt Joyce are out on the back porch drinking “coffee.” (Meaning they’re drinking alcohol, but we’re maintaining a polite fiction that they’re drinking coffee.)

Speaking of coffee, the most famous of all air quotes would probably be the post-date:

  • Would you like to come up to my place for “coffee”? (Meaning… well, you know.)

As for those tomatoes, “juicy” implies that the tomatoes are something other than actually juicy. “Surprise” implies there’s really no surprise or the surprise is something you won’t enjoy. If you want to emphasize something, use italics: Please park in back.

  1. When there isn’t a wrong or a right, SPELL CONSISTENTLY.

There are often two correct ways to spell a word: glamor/glamour, theater/theatre, judgment/judgement, check/cheque, gray/grey, traveling/travelling. Journalists are usually taught to go with the first-listed version in the dictionary, which apparently is why words like adviser and intervener have gained in popularity over advisor and intervenor in recent years.

If you’re a staff writer, you would be wise to learn your publication’s style and write to it. However, if you’re freelance writing, you’ll find that each publication has a slightly different style. For example, The New Yorker uses coöperate and coördinate, rather than hyphenating (co-operate) or merging the prefix with the word (cooperate). You’d go mad trying to adjust your spelling each time you submit a piece. So unless a publication specifically asks you to use a particular spelling, use whatever version you prefer, just use it consistently! Don’t meander between judgment and judgement as if you didn’t know whether one was right or couldn’t decide which one you liked best. As long as you’re consistent and correct, no reasonable editor will hold your spelling choices against you.


With thanks to my favorite grammar sites: Owl Online Writing Lab, Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English, and the Guide to Grammar and Writing, as well as: John M. Lawler, Get it Write, The Keables Guide, and Fun With Words.

Final Poll Results

Unblock Thyself

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Writers are emotional. In fact, we strive to put that emotion into words and transmit our feelings to others. We do it as often as possible and we love doing it. It is our sacrifice for our art and we pay the price with each carefully constructed phrase and each coyly placed period.

But every emotional well sometimes runs dry. Like a drought, we feel our strength is sapped and our will to carry on and through is gone. We have given and given and now we feel have nothing left to give.

Perhaps it was nothing more than a bump in our story. We can’t think beyond the character’s next move or we can’t see beyond the poem’s next line. We can no longer see the finish line and we’ve lost our way.

Perhaps it was a rough critique. We bled on the pages, and they were torn to shreds by uncaring claws of the jealous and the snobbish. Our readers misunderstood what we were trying to tell them.

Perhaps it was the real world intruding into our creative world. Cries from our children, our spouses, our parents, and our siblings: they all need attention and they need it right now. They demand the writing be set aside in favor of them; that the bond you have to a piece of paper is nothing compared to your love for them.

We know we must move past these obstacles, but we can’t find a way. Here are a few ideas that might just help you push past your emotional block and get you back to the work you love.

Story problems can be overcome. It doesn’t seem like it right now, but they can be. Set the work aside and work on something else. Try writing something fun, something without real ‘meaning’. Take a writing class. Write in a new setting. Write every possible outcome for the situation your work is stuck in, choose one, and move on. Believe you can do it, and you can.

Critiques are meant to help. Read them a once, then set it aside for a few days to think about it. Read it again and analyze it. Did the critique mean to harm, or to help? Which parts do you agree with? Which do you not? Discard what you can’t use, accept what you can, and adjust the work accordingly. Chances are it wasn’t as mean as it originally sounded; someone was just trying to help.

Real world issues are a lot harder to deal with. Find a good friend and pour out all your woes and maybe even have a nice cry. Write in a journal or diary and shed your emotional trials. Talk to your family and friends and be honest about the importance of your writing and ask for compromises and find solutions. Be true to yourself and to your writing, and find a way to work through it.

If nothing seems to be working, try riding the wave. If you feel sad, play depressing or wistful music for a few days and just sit and stare at the walls. If you feel uninspired, read a book or two or three. If you feel stupid, watch insipid programs on television, like game shows or soap operas, until all hours of the night. If you feel drained, take a day trip or an outing.

When you feel up to it, open your work. Heck, open it when you feel like you never want to see it again. You might find it the most interesting thing you’ve seen in days. Perhaps something you saw or did sparked an idea you didn’t know was there. Perhaps the solution to the problem presented itself. Perhaps you gave up finding the perfect phrase and found instead the phrase that worked.

There is no shame in taking a break from writing. Just remember to come back.

Final Poll Results

Begin the Blogging

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I received my first diary the Christmas I turned nine years old. My entries read: “today I played at Bonnie’s house” or “I saw a real turtle in my yard.” I commemorated world events with phrases like “Space Shuttle” clicked out on a piece of plastic label maker tape.

My second diary was a blank book, a graduation gift when I was 17. Like a lot of folks, I usually only wrote in it when I was angry. When I looked back over it, the more interesting entries were nearly illegible. I filled it during college, during particularly anger-inducing relationship, and began a second blank-book style diary. Once the relationship ended, so did the diary.

I got a new blank book in 1996 and returned to the old “write when angry” style. After a couple of nasty entries I would be embarrassed to reread, I abandoned the diary. At the time, writing was my job. After working on newspaper pieces all day, the last thing I wanted to do with my time off was writing.

In November of 2001, I somehow found Blogger and I created a weblog. It’s the longest-running life chronicle I’ve maintained and it has kept me writing consistently through creative highs and lows.

Many of us have heard the advice “Write every day.” For me, it’s a fairly unreasonable request. Having a weblog has made the goal of daily writing more attainable. I may not do creative writing as often as I’d like, but I am writing something at least once a week, regardless of whether my Muse has paid a visit. If you are looking for a way to jump-start the quantity of your writing, a place to document the trials of the writing life or if you need a place to vent your frustration about the price of gas, it’s possible that it’s time to create a weblog.

Where to write

There are several places to create a weblog. For ease of use, begin with a free, easy-to-use system like Blogger, Diaryland or LiveJournal. Google has a directory of free blog hosts.

These sites give you a free URL, like “myblog.blogspot.com.” If you like, you can publish your weblog via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) at your own URL.

With some hosts, you can create more than one weblog per username. We’ll talk more later on the different kinds of blogs you might like to maintain.

If you have more html experience, you may be interested in blog software like Movable Type or Greymatter. It’s not necessary to use software to create a blog. You could set up a page at your own URL or at a free web-hosting site (like Geocities) and just type up your entries as you would any other webpage content.

What to write

There are over 13 million weblogs in existence. What do these people have to say?

  • Weblog as a list of links. You could use your weblog to link to news stories, personal websites, e-zines you discover, anything you’d like to share or track. Many of the earliest weblogs followed this format.

    Examples: DayPop’s Top 40 Links, Robot Wisdom Weblog, Slashdot

  • Weblog as index page. Some sites use a weblog as their index page, keeping visitors updated on additions and changes to the site and allowing for site navigation from the weblog.

    Example: Fiona Horne

  • Weblog as journal. Most weblogs seem to be about the daily life of the blogger (the writer of the weblog). As a writer, you can turn the most mundane trip to the Piggly Wiggly into an amusing adventure. If, like me, you feel you may use your weblog as a soapbox or a place to vent frustration, writing in a journal style is probably the best choice. With a journal, you are your entries. In other words, the audience feels close to the blogger and a journal allows for more intimate writing than an op/ed style.

    Examples: So Anyway…, erin-go-blog!, LocoBellaTuna

  • Weblog as op/ed. If you like political debate or have ever dreamed of having a daily op/ed column all your own, why depend on a newspaper to give you one? Create a column and be your own editor. There’s no limit on your content and, unlike a journal, the blog is about your opinions, not about you. An op/ed style blog allows more distance and privacy between blogger and audience than a journal.

    Examples: InstaPundit, James Landrith – Taking the Gloves Off, GoDubya, Kick The Leftist (more political weblogs are listed at Political Blog Directory)

  • Weblog as writing tool. You could use a weblog to do creative writing. Write a little of your story as an entry. Don’t be a slave to linear storytelling. If you’re in the mood to write a certain type of scene that doesn’t belong at this point in the story, go ahead. It is easy to lift out and rearrange blocks of blog entries when editing your piece. You could also use a weblog to create characters. Just make sure that it is clear that you are writing as a character if you have a public weblog. If your faithful readers find out it’s “not really you,” there could be a backlash.

    Examples: ana’s Diaries, What’s in Ravyn’s hair?

These are just a few ideas for weblog content. As a creative person, you will probably be inspired to use your weblog in a unique way – like a photo weblog (example: Juvin.com). You could get your feet wet through a “slam” style weblog, one with multiple participants who each add content (example: Bloghouse, A Mixed Blog, Crescat Sententia).

From the start

It’s a good idea to take a few precautions as you begin blogging. Here are a few that others and I take with our weblogs:

  • Use a pseudonym and give pseudonyms to others. Certainly you don’t need to give a fake name to the President but you might want to give one to your boss. There have been cases of people being fired over weblog content. You also don’t want your sister, friend or neighbor to read an entry out of context from a day you were angry and have them take it all wrong.
  • Think about whom you share your blog with. If you want to be able to vent about the aforementioned sister, friend or neighbor, don’t give them your blog URL and don’t give them a way to find it (ex: by posting your blog at your website). LiveJournal, for example, lets users lock individual posts. This allows you to adjust the level of privacy from entry to entry. If you just have to blog about the barbecue sauce incident at Aunt Midge’s house, just lock the entry and she’ll never know.

Not every weblog needs to be public. It is perfectly reasonable to keep your entire blog to yourself, like a locked diary. If you change from a public to a private diary, you may have to change your URL since readers may continue to visit your weblog, regardless of its private status.

“Private” can mean a few different things, blogwise. If you don’t want your blog listed by search engines, they can add a no robots metatag: <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow,noarchive”>. It’s not foolproof but it will keep you from being the top Google search for “Karen from Winnipeg’s Personal Private Weblog.”

Additions

There are plenty of ways to individualize your weblog.

  • Commenting. Free comment systems like BlogBack and backBlog are available across the web. If you are using a blog service, these commenting systems can insert their coding into your blog’s template. Again, you don’t need to be computer savvy to blog. There is a separate comment box for each blog entry and you can see the number of comments on each entry alongside the entry itself. Blogger has added a commenting system in their latest overhaul.
  • Tagboard. Tagboards are another way to let people comment on your weblog. Compared to other comment systems, it has more of a chat feel. Comments on tagboards are often related to one another instead of to the blog entries. Tagboards are popular with high school age bloggers who use their weblogs to keep in touch with friends.
  • Memes. Pronounced “meems,” these are bundles of questions, like the FUM at Toasted Cheese, that act as writing prompts for bloggers. There are themed memes, daily memes, introspective memes, silly memes… memes to match any style of blog you write. Beware using too many memes; if your blog is all meme answers and no real content, readers can get bored and you lose valuable creative writing time. Get started at The Memes List.
  • Quizzes. Once in a while it’s fun to take on online quiz and post the answer in your blog. These are quizzes like “Which Hobbit are you?” or “If you were a form of cheese, what would you be?” Most of these quizzes may be found at Quizilla.
  • Links and rings. Reading blogs can be as much fun as writing them. When you find a blog you like to read, share the URL with your readers. Bloggers like to reciprocate links and you may find a new audience as well. Joining webrings can increase your readership and introduce you to related blogs. Some rings are content-specific while others are rings of redheads, Buddhists or chocoholics. Blogrolling is an easy way to set up a list of links. You add, edit and delete sites at your discretion. Your Blogroll can be listed on your blog’s page or you can use it as personal list on your computer to keep up with blog reading.
  • Template. Most free blog services provide templates, which dictate the look of your blog. You can add photos, change colors, create a logo or whatever you want to make your blog reflect the style and content of your entries.
  • Personal Information. Introduce yourself to readers with an “about me” page or a “Top 100,” which is a list of 100 odd, interesting or otherwise individual facts about yourself. If you prefer privacy, a cool tagline can suffice. The five taglines nominated for a 2004 Bloggie were:

    Tenth-Muse.com: “Fabulous since 1973, blogging since 2003, drinking since noon”
    Mighty Girl: “Famous among dozens”
    The Art of Rhysisms: “Stealing traffic cones from the Information Superhighway since 2002”
    C:\PIRILLO.EXE: “Getting screwed while everybody else is getting laid”
    Sabrina Faire: “All the fun of a saucy wench, none of the overpriced beer”

What, me write?

If you prefer writing on a computer to writing longhand, blogging is probably a good way for you to exercise your writing muscles. Blogging provides a quick, easy way to dash off a few thoughts while you’re surfing the web.

As a writer, you already have an advantage over many bloggers. You can string words together in the best possible way and you understand the importance of a polished piece of writing. Your blog will have a level of readability that many weblogs don’t have. It gives you an audience (possibly even fans). Famous and quasi-famous bloggers include writers like Dave Barry, Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Stuart McLean and William Gibson.

Nobody would have cared one bit about the brief notations or pages of angry rambling in my old paper journals. By keeping a public weblog, I’ve been able not only to share my ups and downs with my readers (some friends, some strangers) but I’ve also been able to maintain a level of writing exercise through moving, having a baby and other distractions that would have shut my writing process down in some way.

By keeping a weblog, even if you only drop in once a week to share a link, you can increase your sense of accomplishment. It always feels good to be able to say, “I wrote something today.”

Final Poll Results

On the Art and Business of Writing:
An interview with Wendy Corsi Staub

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

Last year, I picked up a new novel in Harlequin’s “Red Dress Ink” line titled Slightly Single by Wendy Markham. I was intrigued by two things; the author’s light, witty style, and the fact that the main character was from the geographic area I now call home.

I learned that Wendy Markham was a pseudonym for writer Wendy Corsi Staub, who grew up in Dunkirk/Fredonia, N.Y.—about 40 miles from Buffalo. I was soon captivated by another one of her books, In the Blink of an Eye—a thriller set in the nearby spiritualist community of Lilydale, N.Y. When I finished, I was inspired to write to Wendy and tell her how much I enjoyed her writing. Luckily for me, and for all of you reading, she graciously offered to chat with me.

Wendy majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing at the State University of New York. She sold her first novel at age 27, and she has published in several genres including historical and contemporary romance, television and movie tie-in, biography, suspense, and horror.

She is the author of more than fifty novels, published under her own name and three pseudonyms: Wendy Markham, Wendy Morgan, and Wendy Brody.

TC: How long have you been writing? How did you get your start?

WCS: When I was in third grade I wrote an essay about Abraham Lincoln and my teacher, Janet Foster, thought it was so good she read it aloud to the class, telling me I had real talent. I was encouraged by her reaction and went home and told my mom I was going to be an author when I grew up. I never wavered from that goal, believe it or not. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and I’ve been writing “books” since elementary school, though I never finished one until I was in my twenties. I used to scribble chapter after chapter in longhand on that colored notebook paper that was so popular in the mid-seventies, ambitiously thinking that I would be the youngest bestselling author the world had ever seen. At least half that dream came true. I became a bestselling author…but not until I was in my thirties! I worked in a bookstore during college and moved to NYC right afterward, where I worked for several book publishers-always with the goal of networking and learning the book business inside out.

TC: When was your first publication? How long did it take you to get published?

WCS: Not counting the local newspaper column I wrote in high school and for my college newspaper, my first “real” publication was a poem in Seventeen magazine when I was twenty. They spelled my name wrong and I earned only $15, but I was thrilled.

TC: I noticed that you write in several different genres…do you have a favorite?

WCS: To be honest, while I love creating chick lit, romantic comedy, and young adult, suspense is my absolute favorite thing to write. I’m itching to finish my current project and get back to the new suspense novel I started a few months ago, because my books tend to be page-turners as I write them, not just as readers read them. Even though I know whodunnit, I can’t wait to see how, or why.

TC: A lot of writers have a hard time with the “business” of writing. Do you have any advice on the practical side of publishing?

WCS: If you’re going to write purely for your own pleasure and for the sake of art, then you can afford to think of your work as art. But if you’re going to write for publication, you have to think of your work as a product, which requires a certain level of professional detachment. Remember that you are a salesman, not an artist. You must have a thick skin. If a salesman’s product isn’t marketable, he doesn’t take it personally. He also should not be opposed to tweaking it until it works and should accept constructive criticism gracefully.

Too many beginning authors make the mistake of becoming too emotionally attached to the project they’re trying to sell, stubbornly refusing to adapt and write for the market’s needs, and then wondering why they’re not making progress. Pay attention to what’s on the bookstore shelves. More importantly, pay attention to what’s flying off the bookstore shelves. I’m not urging writers to engage in plagiarism, but it’s a good idea to note what works and what doesn’t, and which publishers are having success with which genres. Do your homework. Nothing turns off an acquiring editor more than a clueless or a cocky novice. I used to be an editor and I encountered more than my share of both.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you like to read?

WCS: I’m a big fan of nonfiction-biography, history, true crime. I have to read a lot of nonfiction as research so I rarely have time for pleasure reading. But I’m also a big fan of pop culture stuff and humor. Not cartoon humor, but humorists like Dave Barry. When it comes to fiction I love suspense—to name a few favorites: Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Patricia MacDonald, Joy Fielding, and Tom Savage.

TC: Do you have any writing “rituals”?

WCS: Absolutely. I can’t produce fiction anywhere other than on my own laptop, on Word Perfect software, in my office at home. I can’t be wearing shoes, I must have a cup of coffee at hand, and one leg is always tucked beneath me, the opposite foot up on my chair in a comfortably contorted position. I write best when I rise at four or five in the morning, before the pressures of the day can “taint” my mindset. And when I’m on a deadline-which I always am lately-I have to have a set number of pages I’m going to accomplish that day. I don’t stop until I’m done. If I finish at noon, great. If it’s eight o’clock and dinner is over and I still have four pages to go, guess who has to miss Must-See TV?

TC: What advice would you offer to those writers struggling to balance writing and “real life”?

WCS: Discipline is the key. You have to treat your writing as responsibly as you’d treat an obligation to an employer. I would love to sleep in every morning and lounge around watching Matt and Katie till ten, but I make a point of hauling my butt into my chair without fail every weekday morning and most weekends. Writing is a fun and thrilling career, but it takes hard work to remain successful. I try not to answer the phone when I’m working, and I try not to let e-mail become a distraction. The one exception is my young children. If they need me, I drop everything. If they have a little league game or a cub scout program or school trip, I’m there, regardless of deadline pressure. They, and not my career, are “real life” right now. I love being a writer but Mommy is the most rewarding job of all.

Learn more about Wendy Corsi Staub and her writing at WendyCorsiStaub.com

Final Poll Results

10 Secrets Of A Synopsis That Sells

Absolute Blank

By Melissa Muro

If you’re a writer and there is a novel sitting on your desk, waiting to be sent out to prospective agents, there will come a time that you have to formulate a synopsis.

Cooking up a hot synopsis is not something that writers need to fear, yet they do. If there is one thing that really gives them reason to procrastinate, it’s that daunting task of compressing a single novel into a single page or ten pages, depending on what the agent or publisher has requested.

Is ‘daunting’ the correct word to define the task of writing a synopsis? Many writers think so, but it does not have to be. First, we must take a closer look at what the word ‘synopsis’ means. A synopsis is a narrative summary of the main action of your finished or unfinished book-length manuscript. The way I like to define such task is quite simple: condense the entire novel into a short story.

There are slight variations on how to write a successful synopsis, but the basic elements are the same.

Background Image: Pete O'Shea/Flickr.

Background Image: Pete O’Shea/Flickr (CC-by).

  1. Begin by getting off to a fast start with an opening line that has been crafted into a truly stunning narrative hook. Then, move directly into the story. Do not make a shaky entrance. Start where the action and excitement of the story starts, not before. It’s a good idea to avoid telling the back story because your chance of losing the reader becomes greater. Open your synopsis, as you open your book, with conflict. This increases your chance of the reader wanting to continue on.
  2. Determine what the main points of the story are. This will help you avoid writing your synopsis in a chapter-by-chapter format. In a novel, there are usually several points that are profound and it is important to recognize what those points are. Once you’ve identified those, write them down in order and then expand on each one. What factors do I look for? There are several factors which make up a single main point: Meeting—the conflict facing the character or characters; Purpose—why is such an event occurring?; Encounter—what is the air around the story like, the drama; Final Action—win, lose or quit; and Sequel or Aftermath—state of affairs, then lead into your next scene.

I usually go through my novel and pick out five to six main events or turning points. One event is fleshed out a bit and looks something like this:

  • Meeting–between the daughter and her father.
  • Purpose–of the daughter is to convince her father to change the curfew from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. Why? Because she feels that all of her friends get to stay out late and she feels left out when the party is still going on and she has to go home.
  • Encounter–as arguments sway back and forth. The father says that the curfew stands; that he has a responsibility as a father and it’s important to follow the laws of teenage curfew. Tempers flare.
  • Final Action–again the daughter rejects her father’s argument.
  • Sequel–the daughter leaves in anger, determined that she will get her father to see her point of view. This points towards the next scene.

After one ‘scene’ is complete, go ahead and continue on with the other four or five, or however many are needed to write a compelling short story. Once that is done, bring everything together and the hardest part of the synopsis is done.

  1. Write the synopsis in the present tense and the third person. Make sure the tone matches the style of your novel. If the novel deals with family drama, then make the synopsis dramatic. Similarly, with a humorous novel the synopsis should be funny, and with a romance, romantic. An editor will be confused and be more apt to reject your work if she/he reads a funny synopsis, then reads the first three chapters of your work and learns that it’s all about death and melancholia. If you find that preparing your synopsis to match the tone and style of your novel is difficult, one recommended technique is to tell the story into a tape recorder, always in chronological order.
  2. Be sure to include a brief description when a character is introduced, concentrating on the individual’s nature and personality rather than physical appearance. The names of the main characters need to be capitalized the first time they are introduced. Do not include their ages. When mentioning secondary characters or location, there is no need to add intricate details. It’s best to keep descriptions to a minimum unless they are significant to the synopsis.
  3. Whether it is a one-page, 10-page or 20-page synopsis, the format is the same. A one-page synopsis should include all the main points in sharp, concise sentences. For longer works, the standard expectations of agents, editors, and publishers are that the first two pages open the door to your exciting novel, the middle pages advance the story along with scenes filled with drama, and finally the last two pages wrap up the end scenes. If the above method in # 7 is used, the sequence of events will flow naturally.
  4. Make sure that your synopsis is filled with emotions. Don’t tell the emotion, show the emotion. Readers, from an agent reading a manuscript to a person in the store with a book in her hand, want to be lost in stories filled with emotions. On the most basic level, we all have the capability to feel and when something makes us feel, good or bad, there is a sense of connection.
  5. Resist the urge to insert comments in the synopsis that address the reader directly to ensure the reader “gets it.” For example, you might write, “The conflict is…” or “At this point in the story…” Do not do this because doing so jars the reader from the flow of the story.
  6. Read your synopsis aloud. Reading your work in silence is not the same as reading it aloud. Many times I have read my synopsis aloud only to catch errors. What looks good on the screen or on paper doesn’t necessarily sound pleasant when it’s read aloud. Plus, I find that if I’m stumbling over a sentence or the flow of one paragraph doesn’t sit right, then it’s time for a minor rewrite. The edited version always sounds better.
  7. Once everything is complete, check the formatting and make sure it’s correct. Some tips:
    1. Double Space.
    2. Use 1 inch to 1½ margins on all four sides.
    3. Use white, clean paper. Print on one side only.
    4. Use a high quality printer, no dot matrix or typewriter.
    5. Left justify.
    6. Do not bind papers.
    7. Use a header with name, title and page number.

Example:

Name of Author
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone #

Synopsis: Title
Category:
Approximately XX,XXX words

Synopsis
TITLE WRITEN IN BOLD AND CAPS

  1. Find a positive affirmation. I believe that words are power and when you say them out loud, they manifest into truth. Instead of saying or thinking, “I can’t do this synopsis,” or even, “I write such great novels, but yucky synopses. The editor will never buy it.” If you wrote a compelling novel, then you can write a compelling synopsis. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, find a simple phrase such as “I am the master of synopsis writing,” or “Synopsis writing is easy to do.” Say your new affirmation seven times and it will come to fruition.

I live in Louisiana, which is a fertile ground for imagination considering all of the history behind this state. I have written and produces several plays for the deaf, as well as screenplays, novels (pending publication), non-fiction books and short stories. E-mail Melissa: dragonflies [at] wnonline.net.

Final Poll Results